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January 30, 2005


At the risk of grinding an old ax, I'd like to call attention to an article by Michelle Cottle that's up on the New Republic web site. Reviewing the reception on the Left to Sen. Hillary Clinton's abortion speech from last week, and to the Rev. Jim Wallis' emergence as a spokesman for how progressives can address people of faith, she says Clinton's approach makes a lot more political sense. Her main argument is that Wallis is telling lefties too much of what they want to hear--i.e., that true Christians are more worried about poverty than sexual issues--while Clinton is trying to broaden the Democratic Party's appeal to people who think otherwise. without abandoning progressive policy positions. I tend to agree, with a few qualifiers. For one thing, I love Jim Wallis, who has been perhaps the most compelling figure on the Religious Left for many years. And to the extent that Wallis is out there reminding everyone, including his co-religionists, that fidelity to Holy Scripture does not necessarily, and in fact, does not obviously or logically, involve homophobia or anti-feminism, he is serving a function that transcends politics. But I share Cottle's concern that many of Wallis' disciples among secular-minded Democrats are not terribly interested in the following the steps of Jesus, but in taking the path of least resistance in dealing with negative perceptions of the party among many people of faith, and among cultural traditionalists generally. That path is simply to take conventional Democratic policy positions and wrap them in God-Talk. Jim Wallis can obviously pull this off, because for him God-Talk is how he talks all the time. But in the mouth of your basic Democratic politician, telling people that Jesus wants to preserve Social Security or withdraw from Iraq will sound both disingenuous and insulting. Meanwhile, Sen. Clinton is doing something entirely genuine that defies all the stereotypes about Democrats: trying to find common ground on which people who violently disagree on abortion can stand. Sure, Right-to-Life activists won't applaud, but the larger group of people who are troubled by the frequency of, and motivations behind, abortions may, if Democrats continue this approach. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Clinton is doing something that goes well beyond the abortion issue: making it clear that in defending individual rights, Democrats are not ignoring the social implications of individual decisions that worry many Americans. In other words, she is taking seriously the belief of cultural traditionalists that the blessings of modern life carry a cost in the quality of our overall culture in a way that negatively affects our future as a people and as a country. Cottle's also right that Wallis' interpretation of Christianity, much as I share it, will not quickly or certainly prevail among Christians who have been led to confuse cultural conservatism with the universal demands of their faith. My own simple formulation of the political challenge this poses is that politicians who want to prove something to people of faith need to articulate (to use the Christian formulation) both Old Testament and New Testament values: a clear sense of right and wrong along with an inspiring call for love for one neighbors, and even for one's enemies. If Democrats, religious or not, learn to speak with the moral certainty of the law and the prophets, then people of faith might not only be reassured, but could well start demanding that Republicans learn to speak with the charitable impulses--and commandments--of the Gospels.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Most of the time, pre-State-of-the-Union thumbsuckers are a waste of newsprint, full of administration spin and extended recycling of the most Conventional of CW. But Tom Edsall and John Harris of the Washington Post manage to convey something of importance in today's brief but pointed front-pager: the constituency-group motivation behind most of George W. Bush's domestic policy agenda. The extraordinary attention the GOPers are paying to so-called "tort reform," for example, is a simple function of the amount of money trial lawyers contribute to Democrats, and the amount of money their enemies are beginning to contribute to Republicans. Similarly, the administration's ongoing efforts to reduce public employee rights is no accident, and is driven less by ideology than by the amount of money public employee unions contribute to Democrats. The article, naturally, quotes Grover Norquist, whose willingness to cheerfully admit the deeper motivations of GOP strategy makes him sort of the Norm Ornstein of the Conservative Id. While noting that investment firms which would enormously benefit from transferring Social Security funds to private accounts have also been heavy givers to the GOP, Edsall and Harris generally appear to think the administration's SocSec offensive is more a matter of ideology than hard-ball reward-your-friends-and-punish-your-enemies tactics. And that's why the proposal may well represent a dangerous act of hubris, they suggest, aiming at destruction of the Crown Jewel of the New Deal at a time when Republicans don't have a firm majority of consistent public support. While this argument makes sense, Edsall and Harris may be missing two other well-established characteristics of the Karl Rove GOP: tactical flexibility and a belief that polarization works in their favor. Going all the way back to Texas, Bush's M.O. has been extremely consistent: push your proposals again and again and again without compromising at all, until the moment when defeat is imminent, and then either cut a deal or switch to something else, with never a hint that anything has changed. So what if the Republican chairmen of the House Committee and Subcommittee with jursidiction over Social Security have called Bush's proposal DOA? Admitting that before the White House is ready for Plan B, whatever it is, would be like, well, admitting Mistakes Were Made In Iraq. (An instructive exception, of course, is Bush's willingness to back off on pushing a Gay Marriage constitutional amendment because of the political landscape in the Senate--a surefire indication that he doesn't really want to deal with the issue now that it has served its purpose in his re-election campaign). But the second factor--keeping the debate in Washington as polarized as possible--is also important. There is zero doubt in my mind that Karl Rove thinks an ideologically polarized electorate will always tilt towards the GOP since self-identified conservatives outnumber self-indentified liberals by a three-to-two margin. At any given moment, you can expect Bush to be pushing at least one major initiative that literally makes Democrats crazy with rage. That rage, in turn, will make the actual policy dispute look like nothing more than a partisan food-fight to much of the non-polarized electorate, thus shifting the center of gravity of any given debate sharply to the right. Rove and Bush have pursued this strategy again and again. It's hardly infallible, but it does create a trap for Democrats unless they are smart enough to modulate their anger according to the actual importance of a given issue, and offer positive alternatives instead of just negative opposition. All three strands of this GOP strategy--extraordinary constituency-tending, tactical flexibility, and deliberate polarization--are right out there in public, hidden in plain sight; understanding them does not require any sort of taste for conspiracy. But what's really, really remarkable, as the Edsall-Harris piece implicitly demonstrates, is that actually making conditions in the country better doesn't seem to show up anywhere in the Bush-Rove priority list. For a long time, I've wondered if these guys want to entrench themselves in power perpetually, or just want to do as much damage as possible before they are driven from office. The answer, apparently, is they want to do both, by pursuing an agenda that creates power through the crudest possible methods: money and divisiveness. If I'm right, then it should be no surprise that the initiatives that really excite them are those which offer to enrich one group of Americans at the direct expense of others.

January 29, 2005

Cold and Hot

Here in central Virginia, the snow has stopped falling, and you can see the Blue Ridge through the low-lying clouds in a vista that even aesthetically-challenged people like me can understand as one of God's regularly scheduled masterpieces. Halfway across the world, in Iraq, the polls will soon be open for that nation's blessed and cursed first democratic elections. The Iraqi insurgents have done their worst to intimidate voters from participating. The Bush administration, dating back to its negligent preparations for winning the war and the peace, has done little to make this day the triumph of democracy it has so often predicted. The sacrifices made by all the people of Iraq, especially the brave souls willing to run for office, and by the U.S. and British troops who have provided what little security the country currently enjoys, will soon be redeemed or repeated. Whatever you think about the original decision to intervene militarily in Iraq, you have to hope that these elections help move the country away from the brink, away from civil war, and away from the Hobbesian choice between military tyranny and sectarian theocracy. As Howard Dean, one of the most resolute opponents of the decision to invade Iraq, often said: now that we are there, we cannot afford to lose and abandon Iraq to chaos. Within hours, the people of Iraq will have a unique chance to begin the reconstruction of their country, and to show us the door. If I can make it over the snowy mountains to my tiny church tomorrow morning, I will join the Prayers of the People to ask the Almighty for just that result.

January 28, 2005

Fashion Statement

I don't know if Dick Cheney's casual, ski-trip attire at the extremely solemn event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp received much notice around the country or overseas, but the Washington Post Style Section certainly riveted local attention on the subject with a couple of photos and some arch commentary. But Tapped's Garance Franke-Ruta provides the most thorough and serious discussion of this incident, along with the best sound-bite: "Cheney wore an outfit that made him look more like Kenny from South Park than an international statesman and world leader." She goes on to document the extraordinary attention to symbolic detail, particularly in matters of dress, of the Bush White House, and concludes thusly: "There's no question in my mind that Cheney knew what he was doing when he chose to play the role of ugly American in his embroidered parka and knit cap. Perhaps he was trying to signal something about America casting aside the constraints of history." I dunno, Garance. Last time I checked, Karl Rove was pretty focused on chipping into the Jewish-American vote, and particularly on chipping into Jewish-American financial support for the Democratic Party. And this administration has made a true art form out of symbolic support for liberal values in foreign policy, while violating them as often as possible. My take, which is obviously conjectural, is that Cheney's sartorial gaffe shows these guys are not the infallible political geniuses that Democrats think they are--ironically echoing the Republican tendency to treat Bill Clinton as an adversary possessing demonically supernatural powers. Maybe Franke-Ruta is right, and if so, that really scares me, since Auschwitz is a uniquely inappropriate place in which to show contempt for the lessons of history. But maybe there's no deliberate symbolism here, and it's a case where stupid clothes are just stupid clothes. Either way, it doesn't reflect well on the allegedly Very Serious Mr. Cheney.


This week we've had extensive reminders of the potential of modern man to commit genocide during the Auschwitz anniversary, and millions of Americans have also passed up light comedies to go see "Hotel Rwanda" in the theaters. It's a good time to think hard about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, where all our "never again" sentiments are being mocked by the Grim Reaper and his allies in Khartoum every single day. What, specifically, can be done about Darfur? Read today's New Dem Dispatch to find out.

January 27, 2005

Gonzales: No Go

I know I'm weighing in a little late on the Gonzales nomination, but I'm not a big fan of cabinet confirmation fights, as opposed to fights over lifetime judicial appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court. In fact, I generally think presidents, even those I really dislike, should have significant leeway on cabinet appointments. And in this administration, it's pretty clear the White House is calling all the important shots anyway. But I would make a big exception for the Attorney General. It's a familiar argument, but worth repeating: the AG is not just the president's top lawyer, and not just head of a cabinet agency; he or she is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, supervising a vast array of prosecutors, investigators, and specialty cops. The AG has enormous power to help or hinder the pursuit of justice in this country, every single day. Sure, every AG reports to the president, but I cannot remember an AG nominee who is simultaneously so ill-equipped to show independence from, and influence in, the White House (Bobby Kennedy was obviously not independent from his brother, but he sure as hell wielded a lot of influence with him). Gonzales is also, to put it charitably, a bit short in the Legal Heft department as well, owing virtually his entire career to the sponsorship of George W. Bush. I don't know whether these two factors alone would be enough to convince me the Senate should reject him, but it doesn't really matter, because there is, of course, a third factor that's the clincher: Gonzales's status as the Poster Boy for Torture. As it happens, I'm not an absolutist on this subject. I can't honestly say I'd behave well if I had custody of an al Qaeda operative who was reported to know the time and place of a dirty bomb set to go off in Washington or New York, killing tens of thousands of people and spreading radioactivity to tens of thousands of others. But Gonzales doesn't represent the truly hard cases on torture; he stands for the proposition that anything not explicitly prohibited by the administration's extremely narrow interpretation of U.S. law and international treaties is just aces with him. And as a Washington Post editorial yesterday noted, after stonewalling the Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject initially, in his final hearing he squarely confirmed that this was indeed his position. If you believe, as I do and I hope you do, that the war on terror is an ideological war in which perceptions of American values and good intentions are in the long run as important as military assets, then confirming the Poster Boy for Torture as Attorney General provides a propaganda victory for Islamic Jihadism that's potentially just as damaging as those images from Abu Ghraib. Moreover, Gonzales's confirmation will also reinforce the already dangerous impression that the United States will only obey those rules we get to set ourselves, an impression the administration finds ways to strengthen nearly every day. Add it all up, and for me at least, the calculus is pretty clear: this guy should not become Attorney General, on the merits, and completely separate from the politics of the thing. As for the politics, some Democrats think we can't oppose Gonzales because of his ethnicity. But Jesus, folks, if we cannot find ways to appeal to Hispanic Americans without confirming a bad Attorney General, then we don't deserve their votes in the first place. But I don't, for the record, share the view of other Democrats that "standing up" to Bush on Gonzales is some sort of political end in itself, as part of a "strategy" of total opposition to everything Bush proposes on every subject. Look, I dislike Bush and his administration far more than any I can remember in a fairly long life. I certainly agree that an opposition party must oppose, particularly when they have no power at all, and I definitely want Democrats to oppose the many terrible things these guys are trying to do to our country. But just blindly, and at a uniform decibal level, opposing every single move Bush makes isn't "standing up for our principles"--it amounts to letting Karl Rove lead us around by the nose and completely determine our course of action, in a way that obscures what we are for. It is very important that we pick and choose our fights. As a matter of principle more than politics, I believe opposing Alberto Gonzales's confirmation is a fight worth picking. But count me out of any future witch hunt against Democrats who disagree, and let's think before we automatically move on to a massive campaign to fight like banshees against every dim hack Bush tries to appoint to relatively unimportant posts.

January 26, 2005

The Two Sides of "Hollywood"

David Callahan of Demos has a provocative article up on the New Republic site that challenges Democrats to take on "Hollywood" as a matter of both liberal principle and practical politics. As regular readers know, I am sympathetic to Callahan's basic argument, insofar as Democrats who are willing to hold all sorts of powerful corporations accountable for the effects of their products and marketing on families and communities shouldn't give the powerful corporations who purvey entertainment products an automatic pass. And he's right to accuse Democrats who love to bash those who elevate "profits over people" of a double hypocrisy when they look the other way so long as a share of those profits are dumped into Democratic campaign contributions. But in his seamless indictment of "Hollywood," Callahan conflates two very different issues. I'm down with his suggestion that entertainment corporations who aggressively market, for example, video games glorifying extreme violence, sexual exploitation, and misogyny--in a word, pornography--to minors ought to be criticized and held accountable, not defended. And I also agree that the general drift of our popular culture--which we export to every corner of the world--towards infinite commercialization and compulsive consumerism should become a target as well. Yet Callahan leads off his piece by talking about a very different aspect of "Hollywood:" political appearances by movie and television celebrities. He cites the famous Radio City Music Hall fundraiser in which John Kerry praised a group of actors including Whoopi Goldberg and Paul Newman as representing "the heart and soul of America" as exhibit A in the case for a Democratic assault on the entertainment industry. Now let's be clear about this: the Republican ability to distort and exploit this moment had nothing to do with the content of Whoopi Goldberg's movies; it was attributable to obscene comments the actress made about George W. Bush earlier in the evening. The movie industry has absolutely no control, and frankly no responsibility, for what actors say and do off camera, other than maybe paying them a bit less in the future when they've alienated parts of their potential audience. Moreover, Democrats have an easy solution to this particular problem: just stop inviting movie and television stars to share their platforms, particularly if they are unwilling to accept a script that keeps them from saying stupid or offensive things. Let them wave from the wings or sign autographs on the rope line if they are willing, but otherwise treat them just as they would the generous financial rainmakers from a law firm or an international union. Musicians and other true performance artists are a different matter; after all, they are generally hauled onto political platforms to do what they always do, and serve the important function of breaking up the tedium of political speechifying. But for those celebrities who do not perform their craft at political events, the only rationale for dragging them up to the microphone and letting them make still more political speeches is the worn-out "role model" theory whereby NBA stars bear the absurd responsibility of speaking ex cathedra on all matters of faith and morals. I mean, when you really get down to it, are Sean Penn's pithy thoughts on Iraq any more meaningful than Howard Dean's views on Method Acting? So I conclude: flail away, Mr. Callahan, and my fellow Democrats, at the Joe Camels of "Hollywood" who are making a dishonest buck trying to turn our kids into pint-sized greedheads, airheads, and gangstas. But don't blame Hollywood for the apparent belief of the political class that Alec Baldwin is indispensible to the goal of achieving universal health coverage. Maybe the real problem is that politicians struggle and strive for high office in part because it gives them the opportunity to hang out with celebrities whose visages and alleged life experiences regale Americans in every grocery-store checkout line. This theory is reflected in the old jibe that "politics is show business for ugly people." Any way you cut it, the ugly people of politics should try to ween themselves from excessive dependence on the pretty people of People. As those suicidally unfashionable and anti-political performance artists, the Sex Pistols, once mocked their celebrity peers: We're so pretty, Oh so pretty-- Pretty vacant.

January 25, 2005

Higher Ground on Abortion

In sharp contrast to the president's evasive and deceptive phone-in comments on abortion yesterday, Hillary Rodham Clinton provided a direct, provocative pro-choice message that challenged people on both sides of the divide to help make abortion safe, legal and rare. The details are in today's New Dem Dispatch. The impressive thing about Clinton's message is that it simultaneously refutes the extremist, all-abortion-is-sacred stereotype the Right has so successfully reinforced about pro-choice Democrats, while also helping expose the genuine extremism of pro-life activists and the Republican Party that's given them an implicit promise to recriminalize abortion through Supreme Court appointments. Most notably, Clinton pointed out that an estimated 15,000 abortions a year--or about twenty times the number of so-called "partial-birth" abortions that the GOP so loves to talk about--involve victims of sexual assault. She suggests that such abortions could be largely avoided if "day-after" pills were made available over-the-counter. Many people who are troubled by abortion or want to see the numbers go down would agree. But the hard-core right-to-life position holds that day-after pills, like intra-uterine devices, are actually "abortifacients" morally indistiguishable from late-term abortions or for that matter, infanticide. They don't like to talk about that publicly; proposals like Clinton's force such extremist views right out into the open. True, some abortion rights ultras will denounce Clinton's position as a "move to the right" or a "compromise with the enemy," but let's be clear that she did not change her position on abortion rights one iota. She simply explored a higher ground from which pro-choice advocates can speak to the non-absolutist majority and actually expand support for the right to choose.

January 24, 2005

Phoning It In

At today's March for Life, the annual anti-abortion event in Washington marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the guest of honor, the President of the United States, was a no-show. He did phone in with a message that was broadcast to the half-frozen marchers, in which he trotted out the usual code-talk about his support for a "culture of life" and his contrived and largely symbolic legislative agenda aimed at gnawing at the far corners of the right to choose. As my colleague The Moose pointed out today, anyone listening in who didn't have an anti-abortion decoder ring might have thought all the talk about compassion and the need to protect the weak and the vulnerable referred to a broader agenda of helping women and children after, not just before, the moment of birth. But today's anti-abortion marchers know exactly what Bush was alluding to, and thus they probably didn't mind that he characteristically refused to come out and say he shared their fervent desire to re-criminalize abortion, much less the fact that he chose to share the moment next to a fireplace in Camp David rather than braving the elements in his sometimes workplace of Washington, DC. They'll forgive Bush another phoned-in quasi-commitment to their cause so long as he shows up live and in person when a Supreme Court opening appears, which could happen very soon. At that point, the game will be over, the Code won't suffice, and all the contrived and symbolic gestures will become meaningless, because one issue will be unavoidably front and center: does Roe v. Wade stand, or does it fall? Then Bush will no longer be able to stay all warm and toasty as the political winds whirl around the contending forces on this issue.

A Real Crisis For Our Far-Sighted President

George W. Bush has now claimed the oracular mantle of a leader much too far-sighted to be troubled with the here-and-now--a man who looks beyond ephemeral problems like the mess in Iraq or the federal budget meltdown to gaze from high on history's crest towards the End of Tyranny and the Social Security Crisis of 2060 or whatever it is. So perhaps this report on the catastrophic dimensions of global climate change will get His Serene Majesty's attention. Oh, sorry, forgot. Been there, dismissed that as an enviro-hoax to destroy the U.S. economy and teach Druidism in public schools. But it's sure going to be a truly royal pain in the butt for Bush if Tony Blair continues to use his chairmanship of the G-8 to draw attention to this issue, and to the Bush administration's continued efforts to bury it until "the day after tomorrow."

January 22, 2005

"Free" Rhetoric, and Worth It

There's been a lot of discussion since Inaugural Day about the vast and growing gap between George W. Bush's rhetoric about America's relentless commitment to the spread of freedom and democracy, and his own administration's rather different policies. My colleague The Moose succinctly described the Inaugural Address as "disconnected to reality." But Ryan Lizza of The New Republic has offered the best, so far, full documentation of this "disconnectedness" in Bush's foreign and domestic policies. He names all the names of the freedom-hating, undemocratic regimes the administration has continued to snuggle up to, and cites all the sites of the administration's domestic disrespect for the Gersonian values trumpeted on Thursday.

Answering Armando

I got a few emails about my last post on Southern Democrats, which also received an extensive discussion by Armando on the Daily Kos site. Since Armando raises some of the same points--along with several others--as the emails, and because this is the first non-abusive mention I think I've ever gotten from someone posting on Daily Kos, I'll go through his questions (paraphrasing them to save space) one by one and try to address them. Q-- Even if there is a cyclical nature to modern southern politics, isn't the long-term trend pretty clearly towards the GOP? A--Yep, not much doubt about it. The questions I was trying to address were whether (a) the trend is linear and absolutely irreversable, which I don't think it is, (b) there are lessons in the previous Democratic comebacks that might be relevant today, which I think there are (mainly the possibility and necessity of building new biracial coalitions), and (c) Democrats can hope to at least become competitive, if not dominant, once again, which I think they can, maybe not in every southern state but certainly in some. I tried to set a pretty low threshold in this piece, basically urging national Democrats not to write off the region and local Democrats not to despair. And that answers another implicit Armando question which I didn't raise: no, I'm not arguing for the Party to obsess about the South or put all their chips on the South or even "target" the South, as a region at least. I'm just saying don't write it off without thinking about it and really looking at the record. Q--Does your passage on Carter imply that evangelical Christians are swing voters, and hey, aren't you ignoring Watergate as a factor in 1976? A--Without getting into an obscure discussion of varying definitions of evangelical Christians, I certainly am not suggesting that the kind of proto-Christian Right voters who were, as a matter of historical fact, often attracted to Jimmy Carter can be won back by Democrats. And more generally, I hope neither Armando nor anybody else thinks I'm saying Democrats can reduplicate the particular alliances they forged in the past. The point is that they did keep coming up with new alliances in response to the Republican surge, and perhaps, as the three contemporary governors I talke about have shown, they can do it again. As for Watergate: yes, this was crucial to Carter's national victory in 1976, but he would have carried much of the South anyway. Look at the margins. Q--What the hell is a "centrist African-American" candidate? A--Okay, Armando, you caught me in the bad habit of ideological shorthand, which I generally try to avoid. Maybe the better way to describe the kind of candidates I'm talking about is to say they have an agenda and message that's squarely within the Democratic mainstream in their state, with some demonstrated ability to appeal beyond racial and partisan boundaries. The African-American politicians I mentioned fit that definition (Georgia's Thurmond and Baker have repeatedly won statewide); so, too, perhaps do others, like Harold Ford of Tennesee or Artur Davis of Alabama. The big point here is simply that Democrats cannot expect African-American voters, who represent as much as a third of the electorate and a majority of Democratic voters in many southern states, to perpetually vote for white Democratic candidates unless white voters show some willingness to cross the racial line themselves. Q--Why, specifically, did Republicans overcome the "Wave II" Democratic response and start winning overwhelmingly in suburbs again? There are two answers I'd offer here, recognizing that the picture is very complicated and varies state to state. The first is that southern Democrats often failed to offer a suburban-friendly agenda that went beyond better public education (an echo of the national Democratic problem in the suburbs). The second is that the composition of southern suburbs (at least in the high-growth states) really changed a lot in the late 90s and early 00s. Putting aside all the David-Brooks-Style exaggerations about sunbelt exurbs, it's generally true that new suburbs, especially in the South, tend to be very conservative places loaded with young, middle-income families fresh from rural communities or alienated by urban centers or older suburbs. The good news is that as suburbs age, they tend to move politically away from rabid conservatism, often because the Republicans they vote for tend to let them down. And that brings me to perhaps the most important Armando question: Q--What are the Republican divisions that Southern Democrats should try to exploit? A--In Virginia and Tennessee, Republicans split over tax and budget issues, with educational finance being an important background issue. In Alabama, there's an impending split over cultural issues between the hard right and the crazy right, with the infamous Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore likely to challenge incumbent Republican Governor Bob Riley in the '06 primary. At the local level, all over the South, there are deep tensions between suburbanites committed to public education and home-schoolers and private-schoolers committed to their destruction. And if history is any guide, there will soon be deep divisions in rapidly developing sunbelt suburbs between Republicans worried about uncontrolled growth and those addicted to developers' campaign contributions. The general point is this: the upside of Republican gains is that they have to actually govern, and (a) they aren't very good at it, (b) they have to make choices that will alienate voters, and (c) you cannot run a city, county or state on the kind of cultural wedge-issues that Republicans use to win in the first place. Q--What should Democrats do in the South about abortion? Or about creationism? A--While there may be exceptions in states like Louisiana and the border-state Missouri where there are extraordinarily high concentrations of both fundamentalists and Catholics, I don't believe there is a popular majority in any southern state for overturning basic abortion rights. But there are almost certainly big majorities supporting the contrived agenda of anti-abortion incrementalism: bans on "partial-birth" abortion, parental notification, restrictions on sex education in public schools, etc., etc. But in most cases, this stuff has majority support all over the country. So the smart pro-choice, not to mention Democratic, position in the South isn't that different from what we should be doing nationally: relentlessly, endlessly, redundantly focusing on the basic right to choose, and refusing wherever possible to be drawn into fights that label 70% of voters "pro-life" when they aren't in any meaningful sense. As for "scientific creationism," or "intelligent design," I could personally care less if a biology teacher has to spend five minutes a year acknowledging that there is a tiny minority of "scientists" who reject evolution, so long as they are required to equally acknowledge that hundreds of millions of religious people don't have a single problem with Darwin. Fight fire with fire. That's also how I feel about the Ten Commandments brouhaha: I've long advised Southern Democrats to say, "We don't just want to post the Ten Commandments; we want to practice them, so let's talk about honorning our fathers and mothers with a decent retirement." Okay, I've clearly gone beyond answering Armando, and have ascended the pulpit for a tangentially related sermon, but I hope this post continues a debate about the fate of Southern Democrats in a constructive way. Lord knows there's enough fact-free stereotyping going on with respect to this subject to make me crave a real discussion like I crave grits for breakfast.

January 21, 2005

The Future of Southern Democrats

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a special interest in Southern Democrats, and believe they must remain somewhat competitive if the national party is to have any serious chance of controlling Congress, and of entering presidential contests on an even plane with the GOP. And unlike some Democrats in and out of the region, I also think that a competitive southern party is not at all a lost cause. Part of that conviction is historical. There have been three big waves of Republican gains in the South since the Civil Right era. The first began in 1964, with the defection of southern segregationists to the Barry Goldwater campaign, and subsided in 1970, when a host of "New South" Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Dale Bumpers, and Reuben Askew swept key gubernatorial races across the region. The second began in 1980, when Republicans swept Senate races in the South; it was reversed in 1986; and after rebuilding and peaking in 1994, subsided in 1996 and 1998, when Democrats made a modest but unmistakable comeback in both presidential and non-presidential contests. We are now in the midst of the third big Republican wave, and you will forgive me for being persistently skeptical that this one is any more "permanent" than the other two. The Democratic response to the first two waves of the GOP tide was very simple: Democrats began building biracial coalitions that offset defections among conservative white voters. In the Wave I response, Democrats combined strong and hard-earned African-Americans votes with a partial revival of support among rural white voters, often exploiting Republican extremism and incompetence in governance. The apotheosis of the Wave I Democratic comeback was Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign of 1976, which drew strong support not only from black voters but from Wallace voters, and--a small detail often forgotten--from self-conscious evangelical Christians attracted by Carter's outspoken "born-again" identity. Once both rural conservatives and, most conspicuously, "born-agains," drifted into the Republican coalition between 1980 and 1994, Southern Democrats created a new bipartisan coalition by continuing to earn 90 percent support from African-Americans, while attracting suburban voters and southern "moderates" generally with a message focused on education and other attractive public-sector agenda items. while insulating themselves from the less attractive aspects of the national party, such as "big government" and cultural liberalism. This new biracial coalition helped Bill Clinton carry four southern states in 1996, and lifted Roy Barnes of GA, Don Siegelman of AL, and Jim Hodges of SC, to upset wins in gubernatorial contests in 1998. The Democratic response to Wave III of GOP success is uncertain, in no small part because Republicans at both the presidential level and down-ballot have re-established their dominance of the suburban vote, while gradually but steadily increasing their hold on rural white voters. But the obvious models to look at for a Wave III Democratic comeback are three southern governors: Mark Warner of Virginia ( elected in 2001), and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee (elected in 2002), and Mike Easley of North Carolina (elected in 2000 and re-elected easily in 2004). Bredesen is profiled by Clay Risen in the latest edition of The New Republic (not up now, but soon to appear on www.tnr.com). Everything Risen says about Bredesen could also be said about Warner (indeed, the Tennessean clearly based his campaign on the Virginian's electoral strategy). Both men are non-southerners and successful high-tech entrepreneurs who (a) exploited divisions in the dominant Republican Party in their states; (b) found ways to neutralize cultural issues without abandoning progressive principles; (c) used their business experience to establish a reputation of competence and to attract other business people to Democratic policy priorities like education; and most important, (d) convinced conservative rural voters that public sector activism and new technologies could create economic opportunity in regions left for dead by conventional Republican economic development strategies. Easley's political appeal has followed many of the same patterns, but the Warner/Bredesen model is especially worth pondering because it has succeeded in states where Republicans appeared to be in a permanent ascendency. Warner and Bredesen created a whole new biracial coalition, on the fly, based on the political opportunities available to them. Warner, for example, won southwest Virginia, a heavily-white, economically strugging region where our last two presidential candidates just got killed. And he did well in central and southside Virginia, areas where many Democratic elected officials had retired or become Republicans, and where the Democratic Party as an institution had become all but invisible. The $64,000 question, which Risen implicitly raises in discussing Bredesen's success, is whether such Wave III Democratic candidates are an aberration; a vestige of the fading past; or perhaps a portent for the future. Risen cites a compelling analysis of southern voting trends by Ron Brownstein that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Aside from documenting the steady erosion of geographical support for Democrats in post-1996 presidential elections, Brownstein notes the formidable rise in the percentage of southern voters self-identifying as "conservative." But a comparison of Bill Clinton's 1996 performance in the South to John Kerry's in 2004, makes it pretty clear that the rise--or more accurately, the resurgance--of southern conservatism is not necessarily the only cause of the current Republican ascendency, and is not inevitably an immovable object in the way of a Wave III Democratic revival. In 1996, the ideological profile of southern voters was: 44% moderate, 39% conservative, 17% liberal. In 2004, it was 43% moderate, 40% conservative, 17% liberal. Not a big difference at all. Clinton lost southern conservatives in 1996 by 55 points, while Kerry lost them by 73. And Clinton won the plurality group of southern moderates by 20 points, while Kerry won them by 4. Cutting marginally into the Republican dominance of conservatives, and winning a stronger majority of moderates, is the key to Democratic victories in the South. And that's not at all a different challenge from the one Democrats face nationally. To the extent that Warner and Bredesen--and in many respects, Mike Easley as well--represent candidacies that have met that challenge in the toughest possible terrain, and because they have done so without repuduating progressive policies important to Democrats in other regions, I would offer these southern governers not only as examples of how Democrats can remain competitive in the South--but of how Democrats nationally can build a new majority. In the longer run, I personally believe African-American centrist Democratic candidates--like Mike Thurmond and Thurbert Baker of Georgia, and Ron Kirk of Texas, or for that matter, North Carolina's Harvey Gantt, who was ahead of his time--offer the best avenue for re-establishing a strong biracial coalition in the South, and as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois illustrates, a great opportunity nationally as well. Wherever they live, African-American candidates tend to understand and share the cultural values that white Democrats so often have trouble addressing, and also embody the opportunity message that is ultimately the key to Democratic success everywhere. And down south, as I have written about before, a two-way biracial coalition, in which white voters support black candidates, is the right way, and the only way, to keep that coalition alive.

January 20, 2005

SocSec and Taxes

Noam Scheiber over at TNR's &c took a long and thoughtful look at my posts on the possible "bait and switch" strategy underway within the GOP, from Social Security "reform" to tax "reform," and said he was unpersuaded. He makes some very good points, among them the totemic importance of private retirement accounts to the Bush "legacy," and to the conservative movement's agenda of fundamentally wounding the New Deal safety net as quickly as possible. But I am in turn unpersuaded by the suggestion that conservatives ever, for a moment, stop thinking about their Prime Directive: reshaping federal taxation so that income from work rather than wealth bears the primary burden of financing government. Aside from the Jonathan Chait piece I cited earlier, you should take a look, if you haven't already, at Nick Confessore's offering in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, which lays it all out: conservatives are determined to shield all investment and inheritance income from taxation, and are willing to consider a variety of avenues to achieve that goal. Moreover, the Bush administration will without any question offer some sort of tax-cut measure this year, just as it has done for the last four years. My specific concern, which I probably didn't articulate that well in earlier posts, is that Republicans, if they are thwarted on Social Security, will exploit legitimate Democratic interest in private retirement savings accounts outside the SocSec system to propose something superficially similar but actually very different: big, general-purpose personal savings accounts available to high earners as a means of sheltering investment income from taxation altogether. I don't think Democrats should declare victory on Social Security and then move on to other matters. And for the record, I am agnostic as to whether Republicans are consciously planning a switch from Social Security to taxes in the immediate future. All I'm suggesting is that their likely defeat on Social Security could logically lead GOPers in the direction of another attack on progressive taxation, in a way that will initially be confusing to people who might generally favor new tax breaks for personal retirement savings. And Democrats need to start thinking about that. After all, we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

O Unhappy Day

I'm not calling it Black Thursday or anything, and I don't endorse protests that suggest Bush stole the 2004 election. But I share the general sense of most Democrats that this is a very different Inaugural Day, definitely more bitter than the one four years ago, despite the disputed outcome of 2000 and the outrageous way it was resolved. That's because (a) George W. Bush got re-elected without having to admit a single mistake in his mistake-riddled first term; (b) he won by increasing, not decreasing, the divisions in our country; (c) he enters a second term having systematically undermined any prospect for bipartisanship, and (d) he appears determined to promote the most divisive policies available, domestically and internationally, now that he has survived the "accountability moment" of the 2004 elections. In other words, he's done nothing to make this Inaugural event anything other than a gratuitous festival of GOP triumphalism and smug privilege. Predictably, the lines Mike Gerson wrote for his Second Inaugural Address are, compared to the Bush 2001 effort, short on appeals to unity, service and accountability, and long on unintentionally ironic celebrations of America's reputation around the world as a champion of freedom. So: this is, more clearly than any Inaugural Day I can remember over four decades, a banquet to which the whole country has decidedly not been invited. As Bush's partisans celebrate tonight, I will raise a glass to the Uninvited.

January 19, 2005

Ending Exits As We Know Them

Unless you spent Election Night and The Day After ignoring the whole thing, you probably know there was, er, ah, a bit of a problem with the official exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International. Basically, the exits showed Kerry winning the popular vote by about the same margin that Bush actually won the popular vote; and also showed Kerry ahead and likely to win in Ohio and Florida, thus clinching the electoral college. This discrepency obviously created a lot of embarrassment (and in the case of Democrats, soon-to-be-dashed victory expectations) for the millions of people who got access, via personal contacts or the internet, to the exits during the afternoon and early evening of election day. And it also helped feed the conspiracy theorists who decided that the actual vote count, not the exits, must be screwed up thanks to the devilish ministrations of GOP election officials or the Diebold Corporation or whatever. To their credit, the people who conducted the exits didn't retreat into a technical haze, and intone, like a parochial school teacher asked by a student to explain the Holy Trinity: "It's a mystery; let's move on." The Edison/Mitofsky combine did an internal study, and have now released a 77-page analysis of What Went Wrong. Turns out, they say, it wasn't a poor selection of sample precincts, or erroneous weighting of results, but mainly a skewed response level to the requests for interviews that led to a slightly higher percentage of exit poll participants among Kerry voters than Bush voters. And that, in turn, was partly caused by access problems in some precincts, and also by the youthfulness of exit poll interviewers, who may have unconsciously over-selected their peers. The study suggests remedial steps to avoid bad exits in the future (mainly uniform access rules for exit poll interviewers and better training), but I have a different proposal: getting rid of the Election Day/Night predictive function of exits altogether. Lest we forget, exit polls are conducted for two very different reasons: (a) to make sure news organizations can "call" states and elections as quickly as possible after the polls close, and (b) to provide empirical data to support interpretations of why voters chose this candidate over that. The civic value of the first function is nil, and perhaps negative. The second does matter, and not only to political scientists or pundits, because without exits, how could we immediately and confidently tell the president he's full of crap when he says the electorate endorsed his Iraq policies? So the obvious thing to consider is to get rid of the first function of exit polls, and preserve the second (the latter goal being easy since they can be adjusted to reflect the actual weighting of actual votes, as they were a few days after this election). A flat ban on distribution of exit poll data until the day after the election should do the trick, since all the leaks invariably come from subscribing news organizations rather than the exit poll firm. Maybe a hefty fine for leakers would help as well. What, specifically, would we lose from ending exits as we know them? News organizations would have to use actual voting data, measured against historic performance and census data, to "call" states and elections. But they already moved in this direction after the 2000 Florida fiasco, using actual votes to "correct" exits; that's why the networks did not erroneously call Ohio, Florida, and the country for Kerry this last time. Sure, America's political junkies would have to abandon the election day game of searching for and then widely disseminating (often distorted) exit poll findings in the middle of the day. But believe me, O ye junkies, it was actually a lot more fun way back in the pre-lapsarian, pre-exits era when you actually had to wait to figure out what had happened. Instead of sitting on your butt and expecting the results to land in your lap at 4:00 p.m., you did your homework, looking for oracular signs of trends in the early votes from long-time bellweathers like Campbell County, Kentucky. With all the resources now available on the web, election day sleuthing could become a lot easier, and a lot more entertaining--without exits.

Fun With Longevity-Adjusted Benefits

His description of the president's social security proposal as a "dead horse" rightly got most of the attention, but House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Thomas covered a lot of strange turf in his comments yesterday on retirement and taxes. Most notably, he wondered aloud if we ought to downwardly adjust Social Security benefits for women because they tend to live longer. The idea that women are unjustly sapping the Social Security Trust Fund by perversely refusing to die as fast as men raises the broader question whether all benefits should be "adjusted" based on longevity. Why not incentivize cost-effective early deaths instead of parasitical dotage? As my friend the political consultant Dan Buck pointed out to me today, if women are to be punished for living too long, it follows that those with shorter average lifespans, like, say, African-Americans, should get a boost in monthly benefits. Maybe this could become Karl Rove's prize wedge-issue for expanding the GOP share of the black vote. But why stop at racial or gender categories? Why not just come right out and reward behaviors that tend to shorten life and thus protect the solvency of Social Security? By his own logic, Bill Thomas should start talking about higher benefits for smokers, heavy drinkers, and the obese, and lower benefits for careful eaters and regular exercisers. After all, good health and a buff physique are their own rewards. It's time to stop coddling oldsters and giving them more of their share of what they earned before retirement than they actually deserve. Anyone who can echo Casey Stengal's late-life self-appraisal--"Most people my age are dead. You could look it up"--needs to shuffle on in the great cattle drive of life and get off the public dole. Right, Mr. Thomas?

Beating a Dead Horse, or Changing Horses?

Thanks to Josh Marshall, I just read the Wednesday WaPo piece in which Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee called the Bush Social Security "reform" proposal a "dead horse" and suggested--well, a whole bunch of possibilities, ranging from a "broader review of the problems of an aging nation" to a replacement of the Social Security payroll tax with something or other. It was clear that Thomas hoped Bush would change the subject from Social Security to taxes, pronto. Thomas is, of course, notorious for self-regard in a city and a Congress where the average time spent in front of a mirror each day is extremely high. But it's a bit hard to believe the congressional GOP leadership and the White House have somehow forgotten to send Thomas, whose committee has primary jurisdiction over Social Security, the talking points on this subject, with a few pointed reminders that going "off-message" might incur some serious wrath. So his sudden "dead horse" comment represents either a general GOP admission, or at least an honest assessment of the politics of the thing at the moment. What makes me itchy (perhaps because I blogged about it just a few hours ago) is the suspicion that Thomas, whose committee also governs all of us through the Internal Revenue Code, is signalling a long-planned GOP shift from Social Security "reform" to tax "reform," with the intention of resuming the Bush administration's Long March towards relieving wealthy Americans of any real tax obligations at all. Ah, but it's important to wield the wooden stake at the monster most at hand before picking up another, so I guess it's an unambiguously good thing that Thomas has so quickly bailed on a proposal to do us dirt when we retire before considering what he has in store for us in the meantime. POSTSCRIPT: Guess I'm really tired to have missed this point, but as the indefatigable Josh noted in an email, this stuff with Thomas is happening two days before Bush's inaugural speech, which was probably put to bed more than a week ago so that W. could rehearse it to a fine, non-smirking state of resolute perfection. Unless we are really dealing with a GOP bait-and-switch plan that's been laid out in (Mayberry) Machiavellian detail for months, Thomas has probably stomped all over Bush's message at the worst possible time. Look for a retraction, in the form of a correction, by Thomas by sundown today, and then for a resumption of whatever he's up to once the inaugural risers have come down.

January 18, 2005

Big Bait, Big Switch?

With all due deference to my vigilent Democratic blogger colleagues who are afraid that one defection on Social Security will lead to enactment of Bush's plan, the political climate for privatizers looks prohibitively stormy. Big changes in long-established elements of American society require a lot of public opinion lift. Polls consistently show sizeable majorities of Americans, including the young Americans who supposedly vibrate at the idea of getting to deposit payroll taxes in personal accounts, don't like the idea. Whether or not one or two or three or four House or Senate Democrats are willing to negotiate on partial privatization, there's nothing remotely in the air like the pressure on Democrats to compromise on tax cuts this time four years ago, when huge budget surpluses created a strong argument (if not, from the DLC's point of view, a good argument) for some kind of fiscal relief. Republicans are far from being united in favor of Bush's plan, which is losing momentum every day. And finally, the chattering classes, whatever they think about Social Security, can be expected to consistently heap contempt on the idea that an administration that is deliberately engineering an immediate fiscal crisis is really worried about a Social Security solvency problem that's decades down the road. At present it looks to me like it's a matter of when, not if, Bush has to step back from his SocSec "reform" drive. And given the extreme predictability of how this issue is playing out, you have to ask: what are they really aiming at? That brings me to a very important article on Bush tax policy by Jonathan Chait that was posted by The New Republic about a week ago. I didn't read it at the time because I read the headline and thought: "Tax reform--let's think about that later." But Chait's article was a reminder that the overwhelming, preeminent, obsessive, redundant fiscal and economic priority of this administration has been to unburden the wealthy of tax obligations altogether. Read Chait yourself, but his main point is that the administration is about midway through an effort to eliminate federal taxation of corporate and personal investment income. Creating large new loopholes for sheltering investment income from taxation is part of the GOP strategy, especially insofar as they fail to succeed in eliminating taxation of capital altogether. You have to wonder if the purpose, if only the fallback purpose, of the Bush SocSec campaign is to suddenly shift the debate from personal retirement savings accounts financed by payroll taxes to personal general savings accounts stuffed with sheltered upper-crust investment income. If there's any chance of that, Democrats needs to start preparing for it. I have no doubt the conservative movement's "starve the beast" ideologists would prefer a direct frontal assault on everything the federal government does other than coinage and national defense. But as they have so abundantly shown in the past, they are more than happy to follow the easier route favored by Republican politicians: to attack government by (a) deliberately engineering budget deficits that eventually force spending cuts, and (b) to shift the federal government's tax base from income derived from wealth to income derived from labor, so that Democratic constituencies become the first to demand cuts in spending, while Republican constituencies laugh all the way to the bank.


In a postcript to the MLK holiday, Garance Franke-Ruta notes in Tapped today that the King commemoration coincides with a state-recognized Robert E. Lee holiday in several southern states. There are a couple of other states (including my home state of Georgia) where the Lee birthday of January 19 only coincides with the King commemoration when it happens to fall on a Monday (otherwise, it becomes a movable feast that enables state employees to get the Friday after Thanksgiving off work). I guess you could say this compromise reflects a decision by some southern legislatures to give equal time to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it gets really confusing in Virginia, where the King holiday is celebrated in conjunction with a state holiday commemorating not only Robert E. Lee but Stonewall Jackson--hence, Lee-Jackson-King day. But in some cases, there may be a very slowly creeping commemorative progressivism underway. When the Georgia legislature made Lee's birthday a (little-known) state holiday, it did so to replace Jefferson Davis' birthday, which was a source of huge embarrassment back when I was a Georgia state employee. And given Virginia's deep obsession with the Civil War (which is a bit understandable when you consider the state's incredibly bloody experience in that war), we should consider ourselves lucky that a day hasn't been set aside to commemorate Lee's horse, Traveller.

January 17, 2005


Probably like a fair number of other people, I decided to spend part of the weekend prior to MLK Day reading Nick Kotz's new book, Judgment Days, about the complex relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson, who together helped achieve the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act breakthroughs in the mid-1960s. I've just finished the section on the Civil Rights Act, a tale dominated by Johnson's familiar legislative genius and King's agonizing balancing act over how to keep pressure on Congress without creating a national backlash. But what really stands out is the common conviction of MLK and LBJ that the drive for civil rights legislation had to be cast in moral, not legal terms--a conviction that both expressed to John F. Kennedy prior to his first big national civil rights speech.

"I know the risks are great, and we might lose the South [in 1964], but those sorts of states may be lost to us anyway," [Johnson] told Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen. "The difference is, if your president just goes down there and enforces court decrees, the South will feel it's yielded to force. But if he goes down there and looks them in the eye and states the moral issue and the Christian issue, these southerners will at least respect his courage...." Six days after Johnson had given his counsel to the White House, the president received strikingly similar advice from Martin Luther King. A front-page article in the June 10 New York Times quoted King as saying that the president must begin to address race as a moral issue, in terms "we seldom if ever hear" from the White House. The following evening, with little preparation and against the advice of his staff, the president went before television cameras with a sketchily drafted text and committed himself to the main issues of the civil rights struggle. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," he declared. "It is as old as Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."

The importance of using "values language," you see, did not just arise in 2004.



More than thirty-six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it's still common to think of his commemorative day as a sort of ethnic holiday--an acknowledgement of the particular suffering and protracted struggle of African-Americans in achieving formal recognition as full citizens. But even a cursory understanding of King's ministry and public career shows otherwise. He had every opportunity, and every justification, to limit his message to one of racial grievance, but he didn't. He could have rested on his laurels once the worst injustices of southern segregation had been overturned, but he wouldn't. He might have retired from the Christian ministry to become a politician, or retired from civic activism to become a religious leader, but he never did, and never would have even if his life had not been cut so short. What Martin Luther King did as effectively as anyone in our history was to hold up the civic and religious values of America and demand that his country, its institutions, and his fellow-citizens live up to them. And he held up a mirror and forced us to measure ourselves by what we pretended to believe. For all his eloquence and strategic and tactical leadership, that remains his most important legacy today, for all of us. He didn't just play a crucial role in the liberation of "his people." As a white southerner, I am convinced he helped redeem me, and "my people" as well. And as a Christian, I am sure he helped redeem our faith community from decades of passive, and sometimes active, defiance of the Gospels. We are at another time in American history when it would be useful to compare our contemporary civic life with our professed ideals, and our religious life to the divine commandments of selflessness, peacefulness, mutual respect and love so many of us claim as the center of our lives. In memory of Martin Luther King, we should pause a moment today to hold up a mirror, and again measure ourselves by what we pretend to believe.

January 16, 2005

Don't You Know There's A War On?

My last installment on the remarkable interview the President gave The Washington Post involves the administration's decision to become the first in history to refuse to pony up some new federal money to pay for local security costs associated with inaugural festivities. Asked why he was pushing for D.C. to use up some of its homeland security money for the Big Elephant Dance, here's what Bush said: "The inauguration is a high-profile event, like a lot of other events that, unfortunately, in the world in which we live, could be an attractive target for terrorists. And by providing security, hopefully that will provide comfort to people who are coming from all around the country to come and stay in the hotels in Washington and to be able to watch the different festivities in Washington and eat the food in Washington. We've got people coming from all around the country, and I think it provides them great comfort to know that all levels of government are working closely to make this event as secure as possible." Bush, you see, wants to make sure that District officials understand there's a war on terror going on, and that a $40 million party to celebrate his second term might create an attractive target for terrorists, so what are they complaining about? I mean, what's that homeland security money for, if not to make sure the Dancing Elephants feel as safe as they do back home, right? That's a really reassuring message to the residents of the Washington, DC area whose security will thereby suffer for the other 51 weeks of the year. I guess that's what we get for failing to understand that our most important function is to serve as a staging area for George W. Bush's second inaugural, which is what this country is all about.

Gay Marriage Cynicism

Another great moment in the Washington Post's interview with the President occurred when he breezily allowed as how he had no intention of pushing for approval of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Why? Because he's discovered that a lot of Senators think there's no need for it. "Senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA [the statutory Defense of Marriage Act that said no state had to recognize any other state's action to legalize gay marriages] is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen," said Bush. "I'd take their admonition seriously... Until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate." Well jeez, Mr. President, this has been the central argument against your constitutional amendment proposal all along, and explicitly the position of the Kerry-Edwards campaign: that there was no evidence to support your lurid vision of "activist judges" in one state running wild and forcing gay marriage on Red States. That didn't stop you from promoting it before the election and forcing the issue into the presidential race, right? I mean, had you adopted this "let's wait and see" attitude on gay marriage a bit earlier, we wouldn't have all had to endure a campaign marred by an inherently bitter and divisive issue, right? The cynicism of Bush's "never mind" statement on gay marriage is hard to mistake. He and his party richly deserve whatever backlash they incur from social conservatives on this one.

The "Accountability Moment"

Every once in a while, George W. Bush says something so astonishing that you have to hope he doesn't know what his words actually mean, which is always a possibility. In an interview with the Washington Post that was published today, he basically said the election results meant that nobody in his administration needed to worry about, or apparently, even talk about, the mistakes made in Iraq. Here's the Post's paraphrase of that portion of the interview, and the money quote from Bush: "President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath. "'We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections,' Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. 'The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.'" An accountability moment. This is the guy, remember, who promised back in 2000 to usher in a "responsibility era" in American politics. And now it's down to a minute. Takes your breath away. Aside from the fact that Bush would have lost badly had the entire election been about his Iraq policies, this idea that an electoral win provides some sort of plenary indulgence for every mistake made in the past, present and future is really scary. Unless I missed something, the presidential election was a choice between two candidates, not some sort of referendum on whether to endow the incumbent with retroactive and prospective infallibility. For every president, every moment in office should be an "accountability moment" when it comes to the impact of administration policies and actions, especially when they are fraught with the kind of life and death consequences associated with a war. We should all raise hell about this Bush statement until such time as he qualifies it or admits his mouth once again got a dangerous distance from his brain. There's more of interest in the Post interview, but I'll save that for another post, because I have a feeling I'll have to link back to this one in its one-note simplicity early and often.

January 14, 2005

A Typology of Red-Ink Elephants

Categorizing politicians on Social Security "reform" is all the rage in the blogosphere at present, as witnessed by Josh Marshall's tireless campaign to smoke out Members of Congress and classify them as either in or out of the Democratic "Faint-Hearted Faction" or the Republican "Conscience Caucus." And then there is my colleague The Moose, and his useful effort to distinguish GOPers on Social Security as "free-lunchers," "green-eyeshades," and so forth. I'd like to spread the practice to another critical issue, the budget deficit, where Republicans hew to a general line of spilling red ink like drunken sailors in a printshop, but offer a number of distinct rationales for their fiscal vice. There are at least four Fiscal Factions in the Washington GOP. There are those who pretend the deficit problem doesn't really exist, or is rapidly getting better, and pursue a dazzling array of deceptions to advance their dubious case. There are those who admit the deficits, but say they don't matter. There are those who buy into Grover Norquist's "Starve the Beast" theory, which argues that deficits are a Good Thing because they will ultimately (and preferably long after current GOP politicians have retired) force a major shrinkage of the federal government. (Elsewhere I have described the allure of this theory as offering Republicans "the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe.") And there are those who grumble about fiscal profligacy and perpetually threaten to do something about it, even as they support an administration and a congressional leadership that are daily making matters worse. Let's call them the Liars, the Deniers, the Celebrators, and the Procrastinators. Nominations are open for the membership and leadership of these factions, and for examples of their distinctive rationalizations.

January 13, 2005

Get Back To You Later On That, Teddy

Noam Scheiber at The New Republic's &c blog posted a less-than-friendly comment today on the political value of Teddy Kennedy's big speech yesterday on the future of the party. He focused on Kennedy's rhetoric on Social Security. I don't personally have a big problem with that, and moreover, have gotten used to just ignoring all the shadow-boxing in Democratic speeches aimed at the non-existent internal enemy who's telling Democrats to "move to the right" or "surrender" or whatever. The problem I have with Kennedy's suggested message for Democrats is his full-throated advocacy of dealing with America's health care crisis by just expanding Medicare to cover everybody. Given Medicare's many problems, making it universal is probably the least appealing, and by far the most expensive, way to expand coverage. This idea (which Dick Gephardt promoted for a while in the '90s under the exciting label of "Medicare Part C") has all the flaws of a single-payer system without any of its virtues, other than a bogus "simplicity." Beyond the dubious merits of the idea, there's a bit of a message discipline problem here. One of the arguments that most Democrats are using in opposing Bush's Social Security plan is that the retirement program that's truly in crisis and in need of immediate reform is Medicare, whose long-term cost spiral is frightening, and whose solvency problem is immediate, not remote. So here's the White-Haired Lion of Democratic Senators arguing that Medicare is actually the solution to all our problems, if we just make it immeasurably larger. That dog truly won't hunt, and Ted Kennedy should not expend his well-earned political capital on it.

Another Bush, Another Bad Idea

Jeez, it seems to just run in the family, this desire to take a big safety net program and do something completely irresponsible and deceptive with it. Even as W. continues to tout his Social Security "reform" plan, little bro' Jeb down in Florida is rolling out a really bad proposal to "reform" Medicaid in his state. It's basically a block grant to private health plans to let them figure out what to do with low-income families on a "defined contribution" basis. Read all about it in today's New Dem Daily.

January 12, 2005

Ralph & Raquel

Speaking of Christian Right leaders who have traded their religious birthright for a mess of secular political pottage...The Moose reported the other day that his ol' buddy Ralph Reed, lately a state Republican Party chair and political consultant in my home state of Georgia, is considering a run for the office of Lieutenant Governor. There's plenty of irony in this ambition of Reed's. For one thing, the Republican takeover of the Georgia Senate in 2002, which Reed masterminded, led the GOPers to strip the Lootship, held by Democrat Mark Taylor, of most of its longstanding powers. For another, Reed is known to have dreamed since childhood of becoming Governor of Georgia, but is temporarily blocked from achieving that dream by the nonentity he did so much to lift to the Chief Executive Office of the Peach State, the incumbent Sonny Perdue. That's gotta gall Ralph, since ol' Sonny was laboring as an undistinguished conservative Democrat in the backwaters of Georgia politics back in those days when Reed was walking tall and talking big on national television as the Svengali of the Christian Coalition. But the bigger point is that Ralph Reed is trying to cross the invisible but very real line between campaign consultant and candidate; staff and elected official; operative and Talent; organ-grinder and monkey. It's always the private belief of every political staffer that he or she could vastly exceed The Boss in every conceivable accomplishment if the old fool would get out of the way and let the real brains of the operation take over. Putting aside a number of U.S. House chiefs of staff who have succeeded doddering Members after semi-publicly performing their duties, remarkably few pols have actually succeeded in crossing the Great Divide. Robert F. Kennedy and Gary Hart were big exceptions to this general rule. Reed may think he's another. But something else may be going on that transcends politics: the age-old desire of all successful people to prove they can succeed in radically different roles. It's especially common in the political world's first cousin, the acting profession, where comics are forever trying to prove they can win an Oscar for drama, and bimbos of both genders are forever struggling for acceptance as Serious Artists. In the end, Ralph Reed's desire to become the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia is the political equivalent of Racquel Welch's decades-long, futile drive for Critical Acclaim. Eventually Welch gave up and ultimately achieved a sort of odd dignity as a celebrity who made peace with her cheesy destiny. When he gets tired of begging for an audition to show he can play a supporting role to Sonny Perdue, maybe Ralph Reed will make his own peace with God, or with his demons.

The Real Secularists

There's a brief but pungent op-ed by Boston University's Stephen Prothero in today's LA Times that Kevin Drum brought to all our attentions, and it's obviously catnip to me. Citing a bizarre 1997 poll that showed only a third of Americans could name the four Gospels, while 12 percent of us identified Noah's wife as Joan of Arc, Prothero goes on to make an important if familiar point. We live in the most religiously believing and observant advanced industrial nation, but our level of actual knowledge about religious doctrines--our own and others--is significantly lower than in religiously indifferent countries elsewhere. Prothero focuses on inter-religious ignorance, and also suggests that our very religiosity makes it difficult to dispassionately teach about religion without promoting a particular doctrine or offending a particular religious minority, in a country where, from a denominational point of view, we are all religious minorities. But as the 1997 poll illustrates, Americans aren't just ignorant about Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or even Mormons--they often know little about the doctrines or history of their own faith communities. In his deservedly acclaimed 2003 book on American Catholics, A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels notes with alarm the avid interest of his co-religionists in Dan Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code, despite the fact that Brown's theological pot-boiler implicitly treats the basic doctrines of Christianity as a fraud, and the Church as an ongoing conspiracy to conceal that fraud. This indifference to history and doctrine definitely extends to Protestants. How many Southern Baptists know that their Convention endorsed liberalized abortion laws prior to Roe v. Wade? Or even that an ACLU-style absolutism about separation of church and state was long the most distinctive trait of their community, dating back to Roger Williams and to the early English Separatists? How many contemporary Presbyterians know that John Knox opposed the celebration of Christmas? And how many American Congregationalists really understand that the same tradition that made their community so notably progressive on issues like slavery and civil rights also made them for many decades the very fountainhead of nativist and anti-labor sentiment? Maybe a lot of them, but I doubt it. At one point in our history, religious pluralism created a way to define ourselves distinctively within the common American civic creed. Now the arrow seems pointed in the other direction, with religious identity being less and less a matter of heritage, doctrine and liturgy, and more and more a matter of consumer choice--and of secular values. It's this last point that compels me to write about this subject. To be blunt about it, millions of those Americans who can't name the four Gospels probably have no doubt that those Gospels demand that they oppose abortion, gay rights, or feminism. More than a few Catholics who thrill at Dan Brown's bogus expose of the machinations of Opus Dei probably think the litmus test for being a "good Catholic" is pretty much the same menu of "cultural conservatism" and "moral values." And no telling how many Americans who can't distinguish Muslims from Hindus or Sikhs--much less Sunni from Shia or Arabs from Persians--have probably bought into the idea of George W. Bush's foreign policy as a religiously-based effort to vindicate Western values against an undifferentiated heathen horde. This is not an accident, and is not the fault of the religious rank-and-file, who are not historians or theologians, and have complicated lives to lead. But the rampant secularization of much of the American faith tradition in the not-so-sacred cause of cultural and political conservatism must be laid at the parsonage door of those religious leaders who have abused the prophetic function of their ministry to acquire a "seat at the table" of secular power. In particular, Christian Right leaders in every denomination who abet and exploit the doctrinal and historical indifference of The Faithful to promote an agenda of intolerance and self-righteousness are the true Secularists of contemporary American society, and far more dangerous to the integrity of our faith communities than all the honest unbelievers in our midst or in Europe or Asia. To quote from the Gospel According to Somebody, or perhaps it was the Epistle of Joan of Arc to the Alabamans: "None of those who cry 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father." This is verily, verily Word Up.

January 11, 2005

The Moose Tacks Hard Left

Despite my deep respect for my colleague The Moose, I've got to call him on something. He ended a recent post by urging Democrats to "Dare to struggle, dare to win," a well-known dictum of Chairman Mao. Having unsuccessfully used the same motto in a high school student body presidency campaign eons ago, I have to caution the Moose that Maoist rhetoric is not what is meant by "reaching out to Red Voters" these days. And if this choice of words was a blatant ploy for Hard Left support in The Moose's virtual campaign for the DNC chairmanship, then he should understand that nobody will be fooled, so long as he works at the Revisionist-Hegemonist DLC, and thus is objectively a Liveried Lackey of the Wall Street Profiteers and a Paper-Tiger Imperialist. Workers, peasants and progressive intelligentsia will unite to smash the capitalist-roader Moose and his discredited social-fascist "populism," exposing the petty-bourgeois class origins of his call for "reform" rather than revolution. Marching together behind the vanguard of the proletariat, the toilers of America will consign the Right-Deviationist DLC to the dustbin of history. So the Moose should hunt in a different part of the woods. (NOTE TO THE CREDULOUS AND THE HUMORLESS: THIS WAS ANOTHER JOKE! HAD TO FIND SOME USE FOR ALL THAT MARXIST RHETORIC I LEARNED IN MY YOUTH!)

January 10, 2005

Bush's Post-Election Blahs

Like many of you, no doubt, I haven't exactly been paying a lot of attention to polls (other than exit polls) since November 3, sort of like a guy who can't stand the thought of red meat after a year on the Atkins diet. But after forcing myself to read tonight's story on the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, and then backtracking to read Ruy Teixeira's post yesterday on the latest Ipsos-AP poll--well, I guess it's time to get a little protein back on the menu. CNN's headline trumpets a rise in Bush's job approval rating. But the real news (reinforced by the Ipsos poll) is that Bush actually isn't getting the post-election, pre-inaugural "bump" that winners usually get, and in terms of the two big stories that will likely dominate political discourse in the immediate future, Iraq and Social Security, he's doing more poorly than ever. In the Gallup poll, which gives Bush an overall job approval rating of 52 percent, only 42 percent of respondents favor his handling of Iraq, while 56 percent disapprove. Similarly, only 41 percent give a positive evaluation of his handling of Social Security, while 52 percent disapprove. Only 18 percent agree with Bush's characterization of Social Security as a program "in crisis" (though, as just-say-no Democrats should note, 53 percent believe it "has major problems."). As Ruy reports, Bush's numbers are even weaker in the Ipsos-AP poll, including an anemic 50 to 48 approval/disapproval ratio in his overall handling of "foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism." Sure, GOPers will try to use the Inaugural hoopla, and a no-doubt-well-rehearsed Inaugural Address full of Gerson's finest uplift, to create a sense of momentum going into the Iraqi elections (if they occur) and a highly fractious congressional session. But they don't simply face a determined Democratic opposition--they face a public that's not likely to mistake Bush's narrow election as any kind of mandate for doing the stuff they dislike even more than the stuff he did before.


Kevin Drum of Political Animal beat me to the punch on this today, but I want to echo his suggestion that you read the New Republic's editorial on the tilting of the National Labor Relations Board during the Bush era. Labor guys are forever talking about the need for labor law reform, and those of us who don't follow this issue regularly probably half-assume they are just worried about the general erosion of union membership, and/or want better safeguards against the kind of corporate practices (e.g., offshoring) that didn't exist when the industrial-age regime of labor laws was created in the 1930s. But as the TNR Editors show, there's a deliberate GOP effort under way to undermine those laws as they have generally been applied all along. Organizing to collectively bargain is tough enough these days without the officials responsible for ensuring the rights of employees trying to rig the game. This is an issue on which all Democrats need to show some solidarity with the labor movement.

Bustin' the Consultant Mafia

Many kudos to Amy Sullivan for the public service she performed in her new Washington Monthly piece about why the cast of big-time Democratic political consultants never seems to change, no matter how often their advice is bad and their candidates lose. She hit all the right notes: the popularity of consultants who pander to their clients by telling them what they want to hear; the huge conflict of interest involved when party committees hire staff who peddle their consulting businesses to the candidates who dare not offend Those Who Write the Checks; the particularly sleazy practice (abandoned by the Bush-Cheney campaign this year, in one step Democrats should emulate) of "strategic consultants" deciding to run ads which they then place for a fat percentage rakeoff; the persistent "Peter Principle" of successful pollsters or speechwriters or direct mail operatives graduating to message and strategy roles they are incompetent to carry out; and of course, the cozy inter-connections between consultants who make sure nobody new gets into The Club. The only thing I can add to Amy's tale is one slightly different insight about why candidates keep hiring unsuccessful consultants. Here's the way it often works, especially for new candidates for the House or Senate. Unless they are already political titans and/or self-funded, the first thing they need to do is to establish themselves as "credible," and one easy way to do that is to retain a "name consultant." Then they have to raise the money necessary to pay them, and also to implement their "strategy," which may well involve additional dollars for the consultants. At that point, the candidate feels extremely stupid not taking that expensive advice, even if he or she suspects it's the same cookie-cutter crap the consultants are selling to their other clients, or indeed, have been recycling for years. It's a perfect vicious circle that leads predictably to Palookaville, though the losing consultant will typically shrug and blame the loss on the candidate or on the "mood of the Midwest" or something. I vividly remember one particular Senate candidate a while back who admitted privately that he went through exactly that vicious circle, accepting his consultant's bone-headed strategy because he'd be a bone-head to admit he hired the wrong guy in the first place. It made me wonder if Democrats should rethink the standard practice of mentoring prospective candidates by letting them talk to current electeds who've won. Maybe we need a Losers School of defeated candidates who can warn their successors of the mistakes they made, and tell them very directly which Loser Consultants they should avoid like the plague.

January 9, 2005

Did Clinton Destroy the Democratic Party?

In the new issue of Atlantic Monthly, National Journal political columnist Chuck Todd adds his not-insignificant voice to a bit of emerging Conventional Wisdom about recent political history: the idea that Bill Clinton was responsible for the decline of the Democratic Party over the last decade or so, especically at the non-presidential level. He concludes by suggesting that Democrats begin their recovery by avoiding close association with anybody or any organization contaminated by excessive identification with "Clintonism." You can read the thing yourself, but I found Todd's take sadly typical in that he constructs his argument on the foundation of two highly questionable planted axioms and one big straw man. First, the planted axioms: (1) Clintonism was about "triangulation" and "splitting the differences" with conservatives; and (2) Democrats controlled the House and Senate before Clinton was elected and controlled neither when he left office; thus, he, and his strategy of "triangulation" and "splitting the differences" must have caused this decline. Now I realize that many Republicans and some lefty Democrats believe that Clinton stood for nothing other than playing off traditional liberalism and "splitting the difference" with conservatives, but that's sure as hell not what Clinton himself claimed he was doing. The term "triangulation" was invented by the ephemeral 1996 Clinton advisor Dick Morris, and even he never claimed it just meant moving to some position half-way between liberalism and conservatism, but instead devising progressive answers to issues previously dominated by the opposition: "using your tools to solve their problems," as Morris put it in the last book he wrote before becoming a full-time Rupert Murdoch flack. And even if you think Todd's characterization of Morris' term is accurate, there's the little problem that the big, unmistakable Year of Decline for down-ballot Democrats was not 1996, but 1994. And it is very hard to make the case that Clinton had done much of any "triangulation" in the two years prior to 1994, while it's very easy to make the case that Clinton's own contribution to the '94 debacle was a pattern (outside the trade arena) of insisting on pursuing the priorities of conventional liberalism, in harness with the conventional politicians of the House Democratic Caucus (There is a revisionist argument that the '94 results can be explained by disappointment of the "Democratic base" with Clinton's failure to embrace something like a single-payer health care proposal, but that's pretty much a joke when you look at the southern districts where Democrats lost the most ground). And lest we forget, the White House political guru going into the '94 elections was not Dick Morris, but the hyper-conventional Tony Coelho, who consistently told Democrats that early signs of a conservative surge were not worth worrying about, and that Congressional Democrats in particular shouldn't panic and do anything dangerous like, say, supporting campaign finance reform. This is the same guy, BTW, whose post-1994-election White House political strategy was simply to scream about proposed cuts to the school lunch program. Beyond that little problem with Todd's hypothesis, it represents a good example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) logical fallacy, really no different than the assumption that George Bush's foreign policy has thwarted Jihadist Terrorism because there have been no strikes on the U.S. since 9/11. That becomes more obvious when you look at the alternative explanations for 1994, which include (a) many years of pent-up popular frustration with a Democratic-dominated Congress, skllfully exploited by the GOP's dishonest but resolute alliance with the term-limits and balanced-budget movements; (b) a huge number of Democratic retirements; (c) the racial gerrymandering that guaranteed big southern losses in the House; and (d) the first big mobilization of the Christian Right. And then there's the Big Bertha of factors, which I'm sure Todd is familiar with: 1994 as the culmination of a gradual but steady trend towards realignment of the two parties on roughly ideological lines, which gave the GOP its big opportunity (in conjunction with the four factors mentioned above) to make huge gains in areas of the country previously represented and governed by relatively conservative (certainly far more conservative than Clinton-style) Democrats. In this context, "Clintonism" can at worst be described as a less-than-successful, last-minute holding action against a Republican Majority, but not as its cause. The gains that Democrats made during the last six years of the Clinton administration--most notably after the Lewinsky scandal--certainly don't fit into the hypothesis that Clinton himself was the problem. Now you can make the case that Clinton, like most presidents, was more interested in his own political fate than that of his party, and that he did too little, not too much, to try to change its structure and default-drive ideology--with a big assist from Republicans who relentlessly promoted partisan and ideological polarization almost every day of his presidency. And there is no question the Lewinsky scandal reinforced claims from both the Right and the Left that "Clintonism" was nothing more than poll-driven "triangulation" or "splitting the difference." But the idea that the Democratic Party was weaker when Clinton left office--with extremely high job approval ratings and after a record of accomplishment that showed Democrats could be trusted to produce remarkable results--than it would have been under any other plausible approach to strategy or ideology, is questionable in the extreme. And that leads me to the Big Fat Straw Man in Todd's argument: the idea that "Clintonism" is responsible for the post-Clinton problems of the party because of the iron grip of his failed political strategy (and strategists) over the last two presidential candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry. Aside from the fact that Al Gore sorta kinda won, Todd seems to have forgotten that Gore (a) managed to put together a campaign team largely bereft of Clinton '96 alumni, and (b) made a decisive if counter-intuitive choice not to run on the record of the Clinton-Gore administration. Kerry's campaign, meanwhile, was guided by a Democratic strategist involved in every presidential run since 1972 other than Clinton's two campaigns. And for all the candidate's virtues, his effort was notably devoid of most of the distinctive hallmarks of "Clintonism," including a clear overarching message, a determination to look like "a different kind of Democrat," a willingness to say things uncomfortable to Democratic interest groups, or an ability to connect with culturally traditionalist voters. Finally, you really have to look at where Democrats lost ground in 2002 and 2004 to see how truly laughable it is to suggest that "centrism" was some kind of fatal curse for our congressional and presidential candidates. Does anybody really think that, say, Max Cleland would have won re-election in 2002 had he been more of a loud-and-proud old-fashioned pre-Clinton Democrat? Or that Brad Carson could have won Oklahoma last year if he had come out for a single-payer health care system? Give me a break. Todd does say one thing that I agree with, though probably for different reasons than his: that Democrats need to do more on the policy and message front than simply recycle Clinton's ideas and phrases. But it's an indictment of Clinton's Democratic successors--all of us--that the current options or Democrats seem to be limited to asking WWBD? or defining ourselves simply and mindlessly through 100% opposition to whatever it is Bush says he's for. But see, I would argue that actual "Clintonism" involved a constant effort to come up with new ideas based on the enduring values of our party, focused on actually improving the lives of the American people, as the actual Clinton administration succeeded in doing so well. And that's one legacy we'd be fools to abandon.

The Enslaved

Speaking of books, I mentioned in a Christmas post that I had been given a book entitled Enslaved By Ducks about a pet owner's gradual loss of autonomy, but didn't know the author's name because one of my dogs had already chewed up the cover and title page. Thanks to the readers who googled the book and gave me the author's identity, but by then I had received a very nice note from The Enslaved Himself, Bob Tarte. I've now started the book (betwixt and between boning up on my knowledge of The Whigs), and so far it is both wise and hysterically funny. And at the point of the book I've reached so far, Tarte only has a couple of parrots and a deceased rabbit, far short of the menagerie he ultimately assembles. But he's already captured the odd psychology of the Pet Owner, while amply illustrating one of my own favorite maxims: a long series of logical decisions can add up to an absurd conclusion.

Shaky Coalitions and Bogus CW

I finally got around this weekend to using a Borders gift certificate I was given for Christmas, and picked up (or more accurately, hefted) a book I've been eyeing for a while: Michael Holt's massive and magisterial Rise and Fall of the Whig Party, a 1999 study of the antebellum party that died a sudden death in the slavery crisis of the 1850s. I managed to steal enough time from sleep and domestic chores to get through a key section on the runup to the 1840 presidential election, the famous "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" campaign that gave the Whigs their first White House win. Two things of present relevance really jumped off the page from Holt's account. (1) Today's intraparty tensions are small beer by comparison. The early Whigs were a truly amazing and unstable coalition. It included the most violently nationalist and violently States Rights elements in the politics of the day, and also the most extreme pro-slavery and anti-slavery spokesmen. Despite the general assumption that the Whigs were the successor party to the Federalists and the antecedent to the Republicans, at one point, the tariff-nullifier and slavery-expansion-zealot John C. Calhoun was firmly inside the Whig Tent, while the former Federalist Daniel Webster was trying to create a new coalition with the Whig Nemesis Andrew Jackson. Nor were the Democrats of that day much more united, even under the stewardship of Martin Van Buren, who virtually invented the idea of party discipline. (2) Conventional wisdom about political history is often wrong. Holt spends many pages skillfully demolishing the standard account that the Whigs gained power by tossing their principles out the window in 1840 and nominating the ideological cipher William Henry Harrison, an act for which they were swiftly punished by Harrison's death and the elevation of John Tyler, who blew up their fragile and artificial unity. Turns out Ol' Tip was about as solid a Whig as anybody this side of Henry Clay; that his nomination was less a deliberate act of cynicism than a semi-accident produced by the odd timing of the nominating convention (actually held in 1839), a decision of many pro-Clay southerners to boycott the gathering because they felt it contradicted their attacks on Van Buren's "convention tyranny," and a major blunder by potential nominee Winfield Scott. Tyler was an even bigger accident: a man far outside the mainstream of Southern Whiggery who won the Veep nomination basically because none of the obvious alternatives wanted it or could be reached to accept it. Now: a lot of those who formed the CW about 1840 were present at the time, or were at least a lot closer to the events than Holt, but sometimes participants in political history either can't see the big picture, or have ulterior motives for promoting a distorted view (in the case of the Tyler disaster, Henry Clay's supporters had a pretty strong motive for claiming it was deliberately engineered by his enemies). I'll have more to say about that in a future post about the CW that is emerging in some quarters about the recent decline of Democratic fortunes.

January 7, 2005

Buying (Rant and) Rave Reviews

This week's weirdest story is the revelation that the Bush Administration's Department of Education paid right-wing TV host Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in the course of his broadcasts. As Josh Marshall observes, purchased punditry is not a new development, but I haven't heard of anybody collecting 240 Large for nestling a few references to education reform into a litany of ranting and raving. If I were running the Education Department, I'd sure as hell think twice about relying on a guy like Armstrong to promote my message. Unless he's changed recently (I refuse to watch him anymore), Williams is one seriously wacked-out dude. I once made the mistake of going on the show he did years ago for Paul Weyrich's National Empowerment Network cable outfit, supposedly to talk about crime policy. He introduced me by saying: "My guest today not only thinks like a liberal and talks like a liberal. HE LOOKS LIKE A LIBERAL." And his first question was: "How can you sleep at night?" Before I could answer, he went off into an insane tirade about Clinton that lasted for a good five minutes. And that was nothing compared to the callers to the show, whom Armstrong revved up into a hate frenzy that made me wonder if I'd wandered into a parallel universe where the Thousand-Year Reich was still underway. We never did talk about crime policy. But I guess no one was paying him to do that.

January 6, 2005

Message and Messenger

Don't know what the rest of you think, but I'm inclined to feel that Democrats should move on from the post-election-analysis phase of our common endeavor. There's a relatively strong consensus on many important points of that analysis, and I hope this blog has helped formulate them, as suggested by my friend and yours, Ruy Teixeira. The areas where there is a lack of consensus, including national security and cultural issues, have been with us for a long time, and will accordingly require an extended debate that goes beyond a discussion of what happened in 2004. But there's one nagging issue that I have not discussed directly that bears at least one mention: the argument that our big problem is not the lack of a compelling message, but simply the lack of a compelling messenger. This argument often comes up in connection with criticism of John Kerry's (and four years, ago, Al Gore's) personal shortcomings in charisma and communications skills. But within moments, the argument always goes back to a paen to Bill Clinton as the prime example of the master messenger we need. Interestingly enough, this particular variety of Clinton nostalgia is most common not among New Democrat types who view him as an important figure in the modernization of progressive politics, but among those who actually have serious misgivings about Clinton's distinctive approach to public policy. A good example is in Howard Dean's recent book, You Have the Power, which devotes a whole chapter to the proposition that Clinton's unique political gifts made it possible for him to advance an unprincipled, "accomodationist" policy agenda in a way that actually advanced the progressive cause. A similar argument is being made today among Democrats who say that our real problem as a party is marketing rather than substance, and in the failure to provide a "narrative" rather than our failure to have a message. The "narrative" argument is especially seductive until you think about what it really means. In a recent Washington gabfest where I made a presentation about Democrats and the South, a young journalist whose ability and insight I particularly respect asked me if there was something about southern politicians that made them uniquely able to "tell a story" and provide a "narrative" that helped connect the Democratic message with regular folks. And much as I was tempted to validate the assumption that crackers like me have preternatural political skills, I told her that "narrative" was a supplement, not a substitute, for a political message, which is not "a story," but an argument for how a candidate intends to organize public resources to advance the interests and vindicate the values and aspirations of the American people. And that's how it actually worked with Clinton, folks. Nobody has to explain Clinton's political gifts to me. I first personally encountered him in 1980 at a National Governors' Association meeting, when he walked into a room crowded with big egoes and simply lit up the place. The first time I was convinced he was a future president was at a boring economic development conference in Atlanta during his second term as Governor, when he took a boring speech topic and turned it into a compelling presentation about the need to convince southerners that economic opportunity did not demand debasement of public services or abandonment of the higher aspirations of our people. Then and later, Clinton's political appeal did not just depend on political skills or "charisma" or the "ability to tell a story," but on the content of his message, which was consistently unorthodox, provocative and comprehensive--all qualities lacking, in general, from the messages advanced by our last two presidential candidates, and by most Democratic candidates for Congress during recent cycles. Clinton was able to expand the Democratic voting base because he was willing to defy stereotypes about the party and make skeptical voters rethink their assumptions about the ol' Donkey, which is also why he drove Republicans crazy, who before and after Clinton figured they had our number. And this, not some overweening desire to take credit for everything that happened in 1992, is the source of New Democrats' special identity with Clinton's political accomplishments. His message mattered, and without it, he would not have been elected or re-elected as president. Indeed, without his message, he probably would not have survived the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging allegations that hit his 1992 campaign at the worst possible time, and certainly wouldn't have survived a presidential impeachment with one of the highest job approval ratings in recent history. Lord knows I wish we had another messenger of Bill Clinton's abilities in the wings, but he would be the very first to tell you that what he said was at least as important as how he said it. And right now, two years before we seriously begin to audition candidates for the presidency, we ought to focus on what our party stands for and what we would do in power--on our message--on what we can say to persuadable voters, with or without a charismatic leader or a nifty "narrative"--and then worry about how to add the sizzle to the steak.

The Imperative of Election Reform

Now that the effort to hold up the official ratification of George W. Bush's re-election has failed, Democrats have three choices about how to deal with the electoral irregularities that characterized this, and the last, presidential election. (1) They can ignore the issue because there is no immediate payoff for dealing with it, an approach that will make Republicans quite happy. (2) They can make it a partisan grievance by advancing an essentially conspiracy-theory based argument that Republicans have now stolen two straight presidential elections, which will also make the GOP quite happy. (3) They can aggressively push for dealing with the problem by enacting a new, and this time effective, election reform law that ensures intrastate uniformity and interstate minimum standards for how federal elections are conducted. The second approach is a mistake. And the first approach is inevitable unless we agree to pursue the third approach. That's what the DLC called for in today's New Dem Daily, and this is one strategy Democrats of every ideological persuasion ought to be able to agree upon.

January 5, 2005

Being There

Well, it's official now, to my chagrin as a citizen of Virginia who happens to share the surname of the Attorney General of that state. Jerry Kilgore has announced he will run for Governor of Virginia later this year, and he's the odds-on choice for the GOP nomination. But just days before his announcement, veteran Hampton Roads Daily Press columnist Gordon Morse penned a piece in the WaPo that not-so-delicately raised the big question about Kilgore's candidacy. Entitled "Will Being There Be Enough?" Morse's column aired GOP concerns that the candidate is not considered to be exactly the sharpest tool in the Commonwealth's shed, as witnessed by his flailing performance in a preliminary debate with his likely general election rival, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine. While the title of Morse's piece ostensibly refers to Kilgore's unique position as a visible and independent statewide GOP elected official who served his time in the party and conservative cause, you have to assume there's a sneaky reference here to the unlikely, idiot-savant politician Chauncy Gardiner of the Jerzy Kosinski novel (and Peter Sellers movie), "Being There," as well. "Kilgore is game," quoth Morse, "but someone must hand him the right script." As we speak, someone in the vast infrastructure of the Virginia or national GOP may be working on that script. "In the fall, we plant the seeds. And in the spring, the flowers bloom," as Chauncy Gardiner explained the theory of supply-side economics.

January 4, 2005

How To Sound Like A Washington Insider

Just before the election, I offered readers a list of Ten Magic Phrases designed to make them sound like political insiders, and promised to eventually publish a parallel list of terms aimed at helping aspiring young jiveasses sound like Washington Insiders. True, at the time I thought this might prove helpful to Kerry campaign alumni, instead of eager-beaver BC04 staffers fresh from vote-suppresion efforts in Ohio, but what the hell, a promise is a promise. I should mention that I've picked up these tips at a respectable distance, having worked pretty hard to avoid becoming a Washington Insider myself. Yesterday marked my tenth anniversary of full-time work here in the Emerald City, and I'm proud to say I've never attended a Washington cocktail party, made anybody's list of up-and-comers or even has-beens, eaten lunch at The Palm, or hung out in a Georgetown Salon. Still, you soak up a lot of this crap by simple osmosis, so here we go: 1. "This Town." Washington, DC, is a city of more than a half-million people, and the center of a metropolitan area of about three million people. But Insiders invariably call it "this town," as in: "Those of us who understand the real sources of power in This Town..." or "The word around This Town...." The terminology is intended to convey the Insider's intimacy with the small, cozy network of fellow Insiders who actually pull the levers in "This Town," and also to indicate membership in the Permanent Washington Establishment, as opposed to the shabby parvenus who come and go because, say, they are elected to the U.S. Senate. 2. "Downtown." Another geographical Insider reference, which sometimes refers generally to The Executive Branch of the Federal Government, and sometimes specifically to The White House and its hyper-powerful occupants. 3. "Style Profile." This refers to the ultimate goal of every Washington Insider, which is to be profiled in a big, fat article on the front page of the Washington Post Style Section. If given a choice, most Washingtonians would rather achieve a Style Profile than win a Nobel Prize. 4. "The Hill." Short for Capitol Hill, meaning Congress. Subsidiary terms include "House Side" and "Senate Side," which refer to entire neighborhoods, not just to the legislative chambers or their office buildings, as in the common Hill Intern greeting: "It's Dollar Margarita Night at Red River over on the Senate Side." 5. "Chairman's Mark." One of many magic phrases from the congressional arena, this refers to a first draft of a committee or subcommittee's version of a bill, before "mark-up," the formal drafting action. Getting hold of an pre-release copy of a "Chairman's Mark," or speaking knowledgeably of its contents, is a really big deal in Washington, usually legal tender for free drinks. 6. "CR," "UC," "Rule." Just three of the magic parliamentary phrases that deal with congressional floor actions. A CR is a "continuing resolution," a means of providing appropriations when, as is generally the case, appropriations bills are late or never finished. A "UC" is a "unanimous consent agreement," which means regular business can be suspended to handle some quotidien chore unless a Member objects. In the House, The Rule represents the restrictions placed on amendments to a bill on the floor, with "closed rules" prohibiting amendments becoming wildly popular under that chamber's current management. 7. "Columbus Day Recess." In America, Columbus Day is a relatively minor bank-and-government holiday of special significance to Italian-Americans. In This Town, it represents a lengthy annual Congressional recess thanks to its proximity to both the beginning of a new fiscal year, and biennially, to Election Day. Definitely make and loudly announce your plans for the Columbus Day Recess early in your Washington tenure. 8. "CBO Baseline." The most popular of many budgetary phrases, meaning the Congressional Budget Office's annual estimates of present and future spending and revenues based on what would happen if, miraculously, Congress did nothing. "Out-Years," referring to future budget estimates, is another nice phrase, as in: "That prescription drug benefit is pretty tasty for seniors today, but the out-year costs will be a bitch." 9. "Hold Harmless." This is just one example of thousands of cool Insider terms from the wonderful world of federal grant programs. It means a provision which ensures that no jurisdiction actually loses money when the funding formula for a program is rejiggered to benefit some constituency favored by Hill Barons or an Important Person Downtown. 10. "Meet." Short for the most important weekly gabathon, "Meet the Press," the Washington equivalent of Sunday School, as in "Didja see what Russert asked Frist on 'Meet?'" Ah, there are so many other Magic Phrases, and given the relative seclusion of my messy little office on The House Side, I'm probably a few years behind in the latest legerdemain. After all, WashingtonTalk does evolve. Ten years ago I would have included the term "A.A.," short for Administrative Assistant, the then-universal term for congressional chiefs of staff, an appellation since discarded when Washingtonians realized the title had become a neologism for "secretary" throughout the private sector. And some once-Insider terms, including "K Street," "West Wing," and of course, "The Beltway," have entered the common vocabulary via television and other popular media. So: use these Magic Phrases judiciously, but never forget that Insiderdom is a circle constantly exerting centripetal pressure to exclude People Like You. Because there's only enough air here to nourish a limited number of ever-expanding egoes.

Brooks and His Straw Men

Let me be upfront about this: I remain a fan of David Brooks for the simple reason that he is capable of a level of humor, and of sociological insight, that are rare in Washington, even if both those qualities have clearly suffered after his acceptance of the House Conservative spot on the New York Times op-ed page. His 1995 Weekly Standard piece, "How To Become Henry Kissinger" (available online, I am sad to say, only in an excerpted version unless you subscribe to The Standard) remains far and away the most screamingly funny send-up of the Washington Think Tank culture ever written. And nearly all his various ruminations on red-state and blue-state culture have been worth reading, even allowing for the methodological sloppiness and overstatement that so many of his rather humorless critics have exposed. But Brooks has fallen into a habit that is once again on full display in his column today: drawing lines between the two parties, and between the Left and Right of American politics, that are distinctly remote from reality, in the apparent effort to make his partisan brethren seem more reasonable than they actually are. I first noticed this habit back in 2000, when George W. Bush savagely despatched Brooks' candidate, John McCain, and before you could say "revisionist history," Brooks penned a puff piece (sorry, no link available here) on W. that essentially said he had adopted McCain's "national greatness" message. More recently, on the eve of a Republican National Convention that lionized Bush's right-wing record, message and agenda, Brooks was at it again, in a lengthy and much-discussed New York Times Magazine feature that triumphantly outlined a future "progressive conservative" Republican ideology. The only problem was that about 98% of the delegates at the Convention would have violently rejected as godless liberalism most of the suggestions Brooks made. And now, in his column today, Brooks draws a picture of "liberal" and "conservative" economic strategies from so great a height of generality that he doesn't seem to notice, or doesn't want readers to notice, that he's not actually describing the options the two parties are offering to the American people. "Conservatives have tended to favor the American model, with smaller government and lower taxes, but less social support" says Brooks, while liberals "have supported programs that lead to the European model, with bigger government, more generous support and less inequality." In a nice ju-jitsu trick, Brooks winds up arguing that the only reason America can afford to continue programs "liberals" favor like Social Security is that "we have not been taking their advice for the past 50 years." Aside from the cheap shot of identifying conservatives with America and liberals with Europe, which indicates that Brooks may have the private vice of spending too much time watching Fox News, there's the little problem that both of his characterizations of "conservative" and "liberal" economic theories are straw men. The mainstream of American liberal economic policy has never been thoroughly "Social Democratic" in the European tradition; one of its hallmarks has been support of an "American Model" that combines strategic public investments that promote growth, along with relatively small "social supports" that prevent mass impoverishment and promote upward mobility, and the maximum degree of entrepreneurial freedom consistent with genuine competition and key social goods like a clean environment. That's certainly where most Democrats this side of Dennis Kucinich want to take our economic policies today. Moreover, the rise of the contemporary Conservative Movement in the U.S. has led the Right towards economic theories that abandon this "American Model" in favor of a monomanical commitment to lower taxes for high earners and lowering business costs regardless of the social costs--an "American Model" only if you think of Mississippi circa 1975 as a model for anything other than economic self-abasement. And to the extent that today's conservatives can be said to embrace the true "American Model," it's via the deeply dishonest method of engaging in massive public borrowing to sustain a social safety net the public demands, and to finance strategically targeted tax cuts aimed at favored constituencies. Brooks spends a lot of time in his column deploring the huge level of public debt in European countries today. Exactly which party, and which end of the ideological spectrum, is associated with the happy accumulation of public debt in this country? It ain't us donkeys, David.

January 3, 2005

Evading the Abortion Issue

The Papers of Record over the weekend had two items that cast a revealing light on the shifty reasoning behind the current conservative drive to ram "strict constructionist" judges through the Senate. In WaPo, George Will, through the device of putting unlikely words in George W. Bush's mouth, argues that this drive is only incidentally about abortion; Roe v. Wade needs to be reversed, he suggests, not because it is likely to lead to the outlawing of abortions (he denies, in fact, that states would do anything of the kind), but simply because the decision was such an egregious affront to democracy. Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Christian Right leader James Dobson is issuing threats to "red state" Democratic Senators to take them down in 2006 if they interfere with the GOP's judicial nomination agenda. Indeed, Dobson promised "a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea" if Bush doesn't get his wat in shaping the courts, and especially the High Court. Now: does anyone really believe James Dobson gives a damn about theories of constitutional interpretation, judicial review, or the policymaking powers of state governments? Is it conceivable that if Roe is reversed Dobson will get out of politics with a deep sense of satisfaction, happy to trust the wisdom of the states on how to regulate abortion? Is there any doubt that Dobson would be the most avid supporter of judicial activism on earth if a future Supreme Court were to recognize the fetus as a human being shielded from destrution under the Equal Protection Clause? Of course not. He wants to criminalize abortion by any means necessary, and all the talk about "activist judges" is just a shuck. I realize there are legitimate arguments against Roe's constitutional provenance; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, wrote about them before her own appointment to the Court. But there are not a few questionable decisions in the Court's recent history, including, ahem, Bush v. Gore, and just about every opinion penned by Sandra Day O'Conner. But somehow these shaky decisions don't lead to a relentless campaign to reshape the federal judiciary. That's because the real issue here is abortion, and nothing else. Pro-choice advocates frequently make the mistake of suggesting, and perhaps even believing, their opponents are motivated by generally reactionary social views at best or by savage misogyny at worst. Some of them may well fit that profile. But for the most part, serious right-to-lifers oppose abortion because they think it's legalized murder, adding up to an ongoing American Holocaust. So they aren't going to stop at overturning Roe v. Wade; and their ultimate aims include bringing the full power of the state to bear on physicians and women to stop every abortion for every purpose at every stage of pregnancy. And if you thought legalized abortion represented mass murder, you'd probably feel the same way. I can't completely explain why fundamentalist Protestants have joined conservative Catholics in taking this position. Catholic opposition to abortion is rooted in an Aristotelian natural law tradition that goes right back to scholasticism, and sola scriptura Protestants have to twist the Bible pretty hard to come up with much of anything on the subject. But it's important to understand these are serious people who are deadly serious about their goals. For that very reason, pro-choice Americans need to be highly strategic in how they deal with the current drive to outlaw abortion one step at a time. Don't concede the "judicial restraint" argument by opposing every conservative judicial nominee regardless of his or her actual impact on the law. Don't help serious right-to-lifers disguise their agenda and win unwitting allies by treating every proposal to marginally (or in most cases, symbolically) restrict abortions as though they represent a fundamental threat to the right to choose. Don't demonize Democrats who fail to meet some absolutist litmus test. And do keep your eyes on the prize: the basic right to choose, which for the foreseeable future is going to be challenged as never before by people who haven't for a moment forgotten their ultimate goals.